Evolutionary dynamics of the Warburg effect: Glycolysis as a collective action problem among cancer cells

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The upregulation of glycolysis in cancer cells (the "Warburg effect") is common and has implications for prognosis and treatment. As it is energetically inefficient under adequate oxygen supply, its adaptive value for a tumor remains unclear. It has been suggested that the acidity produced by glycolysis is beneficial for cancer cells because it promotes proliferation against normal cells. Current models of this acid-mediated tumor invasion hypothesis, however, do not account for increased glycolysis under non-limiting oxygen concentrations and therefore do not fully explain the Warburg effect. Here I show that the Warburg effect can be explained as a form of cooperation among cancer cells, in which the products of glycolysis act as a public good, even when oxygen supply is high enough to make glycolysis energetically inefficient. A multiplayer game with non-linear, non-monotonic payoff functions that models the benefits of the acidity induced by glycolysis reveals that clonal selection can stabilize glycolysis even when energetically costly, that is, under non-limiting oxygen concentration. Characterizing the evolutionary dynamics of glycolysis reveals cases in which anti-cancer therapies that rely on the modification of acidity can be effective.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Applied Mathematics


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